Hollis Whittle figured the boy had been dead at least a day when he found him floating face-up in the quarry pond. He was bloated; his eyes were open; his skin was already a pallid greenish gray. He was shirtless and looked to be about sixteen. Hollis squinted at the body, twenty feet below him in the murky water, and read the name that was tattooed across the boy’s stomach in the old Gothic lettering the Mexicans favored for writing their names on the back windows of their pickup trucks: El Tigre. Hollis spat on the pale dirt. The boy looked to have as much tiger in him as he did common sense.
Ever since the peso collapsed in ’94, Hollis would find illegals wandering through his ranch near Freer, Texas. The dumb sons of bitches would get so hot and thirsty they’d shimmy down the limestone walls of the old quarry pond, which were practically sheer, tempted by a drink or a quick dip. If Hollis caught them, he’d wave his rifle from the front seat of his pickup, threaten to call La Migra. “It’s forty feet in the center,” he’d shout, knowing they didn’t speak a word of English other than “Border Patrol.” “You wade in and all of a sudden the bottom drops out on you. And that’s if you don’t get snatched in the weeds.”
He’d tried the proper channels—the sheriff’s office, state troopers, the city council in Freer. As a former sheriff’s deputy himself, Hollis’s opinions on such matters used to be given considerable weight. But things had changed. People had grown lazy and complacent. Hollis pounded his fist on the table and bellowed that those illegals could drive a goddamn freight train filled with drugs right through the county and no one would stop them, and most people nodded and said it was a shame what the liberals had done to the country. And so he shouted at the Mexicans if he saw them in his lake, and now one had gone and died, and Hollis supposed it was his job to fish the body out.
He looked up at the sun and guessed it was about ten in the morning. Several of the cows were due to give birth any minute—there was a young heifer in particular that worried him, an intractable Hereford with one blue eye. He still had to repair the fuel line on the harvester and the weeds were overtaking the hayfields more and more every day. He took off his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried not to get agitated. He was seventy-five years old—the ranch was only one of many things he felt slipping between his fingers like sand. The dead boy wasn’t going anywhere, he decided. He’d have to call the sheriff’s office and tell them the boy had drowned. He’d have to get the boat or the winch… maybe both. He’d get to it later.
Anyhow, Dustin would be awake soon.
If Dustin had the bad sweats during the night, he was probably already up, heating water in the microwave for instant coffee, scratching his head over the kitchen table, and dusting the wood veneer with dandruff that fell like snow. And he would be waiting for Hollis to come home and dispense his morning dosage of Clonidine, a pill that slowed his heart and steadied his hand but did nothing to erase the sweet memories of better drugs. And if Hollis took too long, if Dustin had to spend too much time alone without the buffer the Clonidine provided, Hollis knew he’d flip open his little phone and start beep-beeping through the names looking for someone he could talk into picking him up, driving him into town, and helping him get a day’s worth of Oxy or Hydro or heroin or whatever it was the boy could find, because ranching was boring and there were scant opportunities in rural South Texas for someone with an associate’s degree in communications.
He should go home, Hollis reasoned, and see what sort of a day it was going to be.
Dustin was on the front porch when Hollis pulled up. He was clipping his toenails and drinking iced tea. For a moment Hollis hoped that today would be the day Dustin would join him in the truck, drive down to the pasture and check on the cows, help with the calving, maybe hold the flashlight for him while he squeezed underneath the old harvester. Was it too much for a man to want to believe he wasn’t alone? Hollis wouldn’t tell Dustin about the body in the lake. No telling how something like a dead body might excite the boy.
Dustin smiled at his father as the old man ascended the steps. It was in moments like this, when he wasn’t expecting it, that the boy’s face seemed to crack open a second so Hollis could see the little boy with the bowl cut and the missing front teeth pictured in his kindergarten photo. It was this little boy who smiled up at him now, and Hollis was so struck with his child’s beauty he could only nod in response. That was the maddening thing about parenthood Hollis had discovered—that children lived forever inside their adult selves, ageless, the baby and the boy and the man overlapping and as easily separated as tissue paper.
“I’ll be back with your medicine,” Hollis said and went into the house. He kept the pills locked in a fire safe in his bedroom closet—an extreme measure, but one he’d found necessary—and he opened it once every morning and again at night.
Hollis hated the way Dustin’s hand trembled as he took the pill from his hand. No one should be so feeble at thirty-eight.
“Bombs away,” Dustin said. He chased the pill with more iced tea and went to lie down on the couch. The pills made him drowsy. After the initial weeks of withdrawal, of vomiting and night terrors—one morning Dustin kicked him so hard he cracked a rib—Hollis had expected Dustin to slowly reassemble into his former self. But it was as if the drugs had erased vast swaths of the old Dustin, leaving only vague pencil outlines: pouring too much sugar in his tea, a craving for the turkey legs at the Rattlesnake Roundup. Still, Hollis knew he was right to keep him home. He’ll outgrow the drugs, he thought. One day he’ll wake up and everything’ll be just fine.
“I have to make a phone call,” Hollis said, drumming his fingers on the kitchen counter. But he only watched the back of his son’s head as Dustin lay motionless on the couch.
There was movement outside the window, and Hollis got up to see a line of people marching through the north pasture, six in a row, men down to children, walking with straight backs through the hot morning like they had every right to trample his grass and drink their bottles of Gatorade under the shade of the big live oak. And you’ll leave your trash out there, too, Holis thought. More than once he’d had to feed his cows mineral oil to get them to pass plastic bags they’d eaten out in the field, and the sight of those poor dumb animals shitting out hard plugs of half-digested Walmart bags made him so angry he wanted to put his fist through the drywall.
He grabbed his rifle from where he’d left it beside the door, went out onto the front porch, and fired the gun once into the air. As the crack of the gunshot echoed over the open plain, the six figures immediately lit out south, away from the highway. A child tripped and fell, the smallest silhouette in the group disappearing into the tall grass, and Hollis watched one of the fastest runners stop, circle back, retrieve the little bundle from the ground, and continue running.
Hollis turned. Dustin was behind him at the door, teddy bear in hand. He’d outgrown the Superman pajamas, but he refused to give them up and they hugged his legs just below the knees. Hollis blinked and the boy was replaced by a tall man standing on the porch, his pale feet dusted with curling black hairs, one corner of his mouth whitened with spit.
“Can you make me some eggs?”
After Hollis dropped the scrambled eggs onto a paper plate and turned off the stove, he noticed the phone hanging on the wall and remembered the dead boy.
“Sorry, sir,” said the young woman who answered the phone at the sheriff’s office, sounding no older than a sixth grader, “they’re all up on 59 around Alford’s ranch. An egg truck flipped and they’ve gotta clear the highway.”
Hollis sucked in through his teeth. “They’re all gone?”
“Yes sir,” she said. “Even my mom’s up there. I’m on spring break so she’s got me here answering the phone.”
Hollis tsked. Fine way to run a sheriff’s office, leaving a little girl in charge. “Well, what am I supposed to do? Leave a dead body in my pond until the sheriff decides to come back to the office?” He could hear the girl chewing something—gum or a pen cap. Form 11-E, he wanted to scream. Discovery of Human Remains. Check one box for Private Property. Check another for Accidental Death.
“Maybe throw a tarp on it,” the girl suggested. Hollis hung up the phone.
He saw movement outside again, this time out the kitchen window facing south. The six figures were marching through the sorghum field, staying close to the creek but out and away from the trees. He was reminded of the illustrations in his late wife’s Bible—the holy family escaping into Egypt. Goddammit, wake up, he thought. Go pen up that heifer before she gets herself worked into a panic.
“I need you to help me,” Hollis said, suddenly feeling nervous. “The blue-eyed gal’s gonna give me trouble. If I have to turn that calf, I’m gonna need someone to hold the mother in case she tries to run.”
After finishing his eggs, Dustin had returned to the couch, and he spoke without opening his eyes. “Right now? I don’t feel good. I think I need to keep lying down.”
“I’m asking you to help me. Come on now.”
Dustin opened his eyes and gave a short, exasperated grunt, but he swiped down at the floor and picked up his rubber flip-flops. Hollis decided not to tell the boy that he would regret not wearing boots. Better to learn the hard way.
As he joined his son in the cab and closed the door of the pickup, Hollis wished someone would see the two of them in there. “There goes Whittle and his son,” they would say. “Blessed is the man whose quiver is full.”
Hollis started the truck. Dustin lay his head against the passenger window. In his son’s reflection, Hollis could see the boy’s pupils contracted into hard little points, like tiny black pills.
The heifer was young, not quite a year and a half, and her pregnancy had caught Hollis by surprise, though surprises were becoming less meaningful the older he got. When he found her, an hour later, she was a mile from the others and stranded in knee-deep creek water, too panicked to scramble back up the bank. Hollis and Dustin waded in and pushed her out, Hollis hitting her broad flanks with a stick because she was too wild with pain and fear to move, and they brought her up to a spot where the grass seemed not as prickly. Hollis worried he was too late—she was dilated but nothing presented, which usually meant a stillbirth. The heifer nervously picked up one foot and then another, and Hollis whispered to her and stroked her back to calm her enough that he could reach inside her and feel if the calf was breech.
“Like this,” he said, and he ran his hand over the cow’s poll and stroked her muzzle before stepping aside so Dustin could try. Dustin’s hand flopped over the cow’s face in a lackluster gesture that caused her to blink and jerk her face away, but Hollis had him do it again and again until he could get around back of her and assess the calf.
He took a deep breath and pushed his hand gently inside her and, to his dismay, found the calf facing the wrong direction, his hind legs stretched straight out in front of him toward the mother’s head. Hollis withdrew his hand and bent over to catch his breath, surprised at how his heart pounded and his knees shook.
In his haste to find her he’d forgotten his rope, his lubricant, everything, and so once he’d calmed down, he put his hand gingerly back inside the heifer and attempted to push the calf’s head and body up against the top of the uterus enough that he could pull the back legs out. The heifer lowed and squatted with Hollis’s arm still inside her.
When the cow dropped, Dustin backed away and stuck one bare foot straight into a fire ant mound. He screamed, grabbed his foot, and hopped over the dry grass to the pickup truck, abandoning Hollis with the cow, who seemed not a bit eager to give birth.
“They’re all over me!” Dustin screamed. “I can’t catch ‘em!”
Hollis cursed Dustin and the heifer and brought himself down, too—it would be easier than coaxing her back up. From this position, it was much harder to grab hold of the calf’s legs, and Hollis was wary of rupturing the uterus. The heifer tried to scoot away from him on her haunches—she was a determined one—but Hollis followed her.
“Don’t be stupid now, missy” he said. “He’ll die in there.”
“It’s like acid,” Dustin wailed. “Don’t you have any cream or anything in the truck?”
The cow flopped over on her left side a few yards away, and Hollis said a silent thank you. He reached back in a third time and was finally able to get a good grasp of the calf’s feet. Slowly and gently, he pulled the back legs toward him, praying the calf was still alive. There was a sucking sound as he extracted the calf, and his clothes were soon soaked with amniotic fluid. Inch by inch, he pulled on the calf’s back legs until they were hanging loose of his mother. Ten more minutes of rocking and pulling and the newborn calf was lying on the ground.
Sweat poured off Hollis’s brow as he rubbed the calf all over, trying to get it to wake up and breathe. There was a muted flutter deep in the calf’s chest like a butterfly in a jar and his gums were gray. Hollis pulled the calf upright into an almost-sitting position, held him tight against his body, and poked his finger into the calf’s nose and mouth to clear his airways. The calf only fell limp against Hollis, so he picked up a twig and poked it into the calf’s mouth, tickled his nostrils, and pulled mucousy afterbirth out of the baby with dirty fingers. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, the calf blinked his eyes and lightly shook his head.
“Here we go,” Hollis said. “Here we go, fella. That’s a good boy.” He gave the calf a final vigorous rubbing down to get the blood flowing into his limbs and watched with relief as his lips colored a healthy pink. “Let’s go meet your mama, huh? Let’s go find your mama.”
But when he looked up to find the heifer, she was fifty yards away heading back in the direction of the house.
“Goddamn you,” he said and kicked the dirt.
“It’s swelled up like a fucking tree stump,” Dustin said, tracing his fingers in a delicate motion along the top of his foot, like a mother might stroke her new baby’s hair. Hollis looked at his son and wondered if he had made one big mistake with Dustin, one crowbar to the spine that bent and disfigured the boy, or a lifetime of small missteps, zigs instead of zags, which became the crooked mold into which the boy had been poured. But did it matter? Either way the result was the same.
By the time he’d reunited the calf with his reluctant mother, brought the two into the cowshed, poured grain over the baby to fool the obstinate cow into licking him, and then hobbled her legs and pinned her in a stall to force her to stand still so the calf could nurse, Hollis was so hot and tired black spots flickered in and out of his vision. But before he left the new mother he swatted her once with a pig stick. She cried out in anger.
“Damned fool,” he said. “Feed your boy.”
Dustin was lying on a bench outside the barn, one of his flip-flops placed over his eyes to shield them from the late afternoon sun. “They’re back,” he said, and waved one hand east. Hollis looked up and saw the six Mexicans watching him from the other side of some long-vacant pallet hives, close enough that he could count two men, one woman, a teenage boy, and two little girls in identical long braids. They watched him without blinking, like mannequins lined up in a store window.
“If they’re fixing to rob me they’ve got another thing coming,” Hollis said, silently counting the paces between himself and his rifle leaning against the front seat of the truck.
“They’re just thirsty,” Dustin said. “I gave them some water. They’re trying to get to Beeville.”
“You did what?” Hollis rounded on his son. The flip-flop was bright yellow and looked like a giant jellybean lying across Dustin’s forehead. Hollis picked it up and struck the boy on the head with it. Dustin scrambled to sit up, blinking against the setting sun.
“Jesus,” Dustin said, rubbing the top of his head, “I let them fill up their bottles with the hose. It’s not like I cooked them dinner.”
“They’re criminals.” Hollis looked over at the Mexican family, who hadn’t moved. “Git!” he shouted, but they only stared. “Do you ever wonder why you can’t get a job?” he asked, turning back to his son, who watched him with meager interest. The sand was falling through his fingers faster and faster, and Hollis felt he had to do something to grab up all the grains before everything was gone. “Did you ever stop to think where all those drugs came from that you were buying?” He pointed to the family, to the twin girls who wore t-shirts that glittered with pictures of Cinderella. “Those little girls right there. For all you know their backpacks are stuffed with heroin. It was even starting back when I was on duty. Caught ‘em as young as eight trying to sneak in carrying lunch boxes full of marijuana.” The anger was on him like fire ants, rippling across his skin. He picked up a rock and hurled it in the direction of the family. Though he was well short, one of the men signaled something to the others and they walked away, heading back in the direction of the creek and the coverage of the trees. As they disappeared into the dense brush that grew along the banks, Hollis panicked a moment, worried that he’d imagined the Mexicans, or that they were ghosts come to haunt him with their stares, accusing him of injustices he’d long forgotten.
He’d sent them back. He’d sent them all back. They all cried, begging him to please let them call their Tía in Falfurrias, that they had a job picking cotton waiting for them in Robstown. The children were the worst. He gave them cartons of milk and moon pies for the drive to the processing center in Laredo. More than one had thrown the milk at his head. What kind of mother sends an eight-year-old into a foreign country alone? What kind of love is that?
Dustin was up and pacing now, picking at the hair above his right temple. His skin looked bloodless and gray in the waning sunlight, and Hollis was afraid that maybe the boy carried his death inside him as well as his youth. Something in his son’s posture reminded him of the dead boy in the pond, and Hollis was struck with a feeling of profound futility and the certainty that a man alone isn’t worth a damn.
“Can we go back to the house now?” Dustin looked at him flatly with his hand above his forehead, still holding a lock of hair. “It’s after five.”
Time for Dustin’s second dose. Hollis watched the trees at the creek another moment, expecting the family to reappear, but they stayed hidden. He’d check on the heifer once more after dinner. Make sure her milk had come down, that she’d fed the calf.
“What are you going to do when I’m gone?” The question startled Hollis for he hadn’t realized it had been anywhere near his lips, but once out, he wanted to know the answer.
Dustin brought his hand down. The skin was red where he’d been pulling his hair. “I’d ask you the same thing.” He shuffled his feet in his yellow flip-flops, kicking up dust behind him on his way to the pickup.
At home Hollis gave Dustin his pill and made the boy eat a little soup. “Go lie down,” he said when the medicine made Dustin so tired, he almost fell face-first into his chicken and rice.
The sun had set. Hollis made himself a cup of coffee and went out onto the porch. Far off on the other side of the black yard that surrounded the house, cars made red and white trails as they rocketed down Highway 44. Behind him junebugs hurled their round bodies at the yellow porch light, hitting the glass with quiet thunks. He heard someone cough out to his left, and he didn’t need to look to know it was the family, the illegals. Maybe they weren’t even Mexican. For all he knew they could have walked from Honduras. If they had a boat, maybe Venezuela, Paraguay, the Tierra del Fuego. One boy he’d picked up selling pecans out of a pickup truck had asked him, in perfect English, from where his family had emigrated. Hollis had to admit he was adopted, that he had no idea from where his people hailed. “They could have been mojados,” the boy said, “just like me.” Hollis laughed and shook his head. He’d jangled the keys awhile in his hand after he closed the cell door.
Despite the coffee, Hollis felt slow, as though he had to swim a long way up to reach the surface where everything was happening. Dustin was snoring lightly inside the house. Hollis left the coffee mug on the porch rail and got in his truck. He wanted to drive out to the cowshed, make sure the heifer had cleaned her calf, that she’d fed him her colostrum. Reaching the building, Hollis had a sense of foreboding, and he almost got back in the truck and drove back to the house to make sure Dustin was all right. But he decided it was a foolish suspicion, an old man’s mind being pulled like taffy—eventually it would tear.
Before he turned on the lights he smelled fresh blood, though even this did not prepare him for what he found in the pen. The blue-eyed heifer had broken through her hobbles and, with her free hind legs, kicked the calf to death. Hollis turned away in horror, but not before he saw the calf’s brains smeared on the ground behind the Hereford, who stood lazily chewing hay. Hollis breathed loudly through his nose as he retrieved his bolt gun. Her blue eye didn’t flinch even as he brought the barrel to her forehead. He glared her down, wishing she would jerk her head away, give some signal of defiance or regret, but she only glared right back at him. She only closed her eyes as he pulled the trigger and delivered the blow.
He left the two dead cows in their pen—there were so many things to get to later—and drove his truck through the dark fields to the quarry pond. With a flashlight held between his teeth, he found a rough path down the steep cliffs, and, careful not to slip and drown himself next to the boy, was able to catch the body near the western shore. He dragged it out of the water and onto the narrow sandy bank, wrapped it tightly in a heavy canvas tarp, and then tied a rope around the boy’s waist. The winch did the rest.
He found the family in the trees by the creek. They didn’t run as his truck approached. The woman wore a white dress that hung on her like a pillowcase and shone silver in the moonlight, and Hollis struggled to remember the name of the ghost that haunted the banks of the Rio Grande, calling out for the children she’d drowned. She brought her hand to her mouth as Hollis carried the body to her—a body that seemed surprisingly light, more suited to a twelve-year-old than a high schooler. The two men and the teenage boy removed their baseball caps and held them to their chests, but no one made a sound as Hollis lay the boy on the ground at their feet. He could hear the creek running behind them, last winter’s rains forced between rocks and broken bottles and over knots of sandburs before it could reach the grass. Nothing in Texas came easy.
Hollis stood and looked at the boy wrapped in canvas and felt he ought to say something, though no words came. He realized there was nothing to say. Boys wandered lost through his ranch all the time, missed only by their mothers. What kind of love is that?
The woman knelt and laid her face against where the boy’s chest would be. Even in the dark, the twin girls’ shirts glittered like diamonds. Hollis was struck that maybe they’d bought the shirts especially for the journey, that like Cinderella they hoped to be rescued, if only for one night.
Hollis felt that to stay longer would be an intrusion. Gravel crunched under his tires as he headed back to the little farmhouse by the highway. The lights were off and he was glad Dustin was sleeping. God willing, Hollis thought, his boy would sleep through the night.
Rumpus original art by Final Girl.